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The new Starsky & Hutch movie faces more uphill battles than your average exercise in retro-snark. It arrives not only on the heels of several ill-fated tube salvage jobs (The Mod Squad, I Spy, S.W.A.T.) but also a full decade after Spike Jonze’s “Sabotage” video, a loving supercop spoof that nailed the genre in four minutes flat. From today’s rerun-fogged perspective, the series’ aggro-campy, disco-sleazy vibe seems hardly distinctive—wasn’t every late-’70s cop show dirty, hairy, and kind of gay? Did Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul possess any defining traits besides their tresses? (This much we remember: The blond sang “Don’t Give Up on Us Baby”; the brunet went on to direct the Governator in The Running Man.) It’s just as well that the filmmakers literally start from scratch: Calling itself a prequel—i.e., a pretext for nonsensical backstory—S&H is mainly a tandem vehicle for Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, the most intuitively attuned comic duo of our time.
Stiller’s easily miffed Starsky, another selfless addition to the actor’s gallery of emasculated heroes, is forever being compared to his late mother, a decorated veteran of the force (was Police Woman Angie Dickinson unavailable to play her in flashback?). After a botched arrest, Starsky is partnered with Wilson’s nonchalantly corruptible Hutch, an internal affairs nightmare introduced, in a possible Cassavetes homage, robbing a Chinese bookie. With help from Snoop Dogg’s iguana-petting informant Huggy Bear and via many enthusiastically costumed undercover operations (the funniest: mimes at a bat mitzvah), the two must stop Vince Vaughn’s bloated, bronzed dealer from flooding the American market with an odorless variety of blow that tastes like sweetener: New Coke!
Director-co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School) defaults to VH1 nostalgia, mocking and celebrating 30-year-old hairstyles, pop songs, and synthetic fabrics (it must be said, the movie seriously overestimates the hilarity of dated, outsize electronic equipment). The few S&H signifiers anyone remembers are dutifully caricatured, from wah-wah pedal and screeching Gran Torino to improbable rooftop leaps and highly expressive sprinting, accentuated by slo-mo and freeze-frames. This would surely have been a more eccentric movie had Stiller or Wilson moonlighted on the script committee. (Stiller’s imprint is at times evident: He does his trademark dance-off, to K.C. & the Sunshine Band, and his sideburned-mogul disguise—”Do it”—resurrects the No, No, No Guy from The Ben Stiller Show, just out on an essential two-disc DVD.)
S&H‘s chief pleasure is the spontaneous, sometimes quite touching rapport between the two stars, who move the duo’s relationship from good-cop/bad-cop friction (“Crime called in sick,” Starsky reproves a tardy Hutch. “It’s getting a late start too”) to the kind of mutual ease that allows two men to hang out in a precinct locker room naked but for the petite hand towels barely covering their midsections. Uncloseting the show’s tight-trousered homoeroticism, Starsky & Hutch also gently subverts the gay-panic humor endemic to contemporary buddy comedies: Fans of Zoolander‘s stoned orgy will be delighted to hear that Will Ferrell’s dragon-fetishizing convict, issuing demands and making eyes from behind a plate-glass window, forces our heroes into some mighty compromising positions.